Content delivery taking on enterprise role

Web acceleration and content delivery networks were spawned from the need to bring 'Net surfers closer to their favorite sites. Now vendors are trying to bring these technologies closer to home for corporate network professionals.

With the lack of purchase orders coming from carriers and CDN service providers lately, Web acceleration vendors are looking to sell their wares to corporate customers interested in building e-business extranets or adding additional layers of security to their networks.

In the near future, says Brian Walck, director of product marketing for Cisco's content networking business, the concept of CDNs should become more entrenched in the areas of business-to-business and supply chain acceleration. Walck describes these future networks as CDN-based extranets, where instead of accelerating the delivery of streaming video and Web pages to public end users, business information will be exchanged more quickly among partners in the e-commerce CDN.

"These [technologies] are essentially the replacements for [electronic data interchange], and they're all based around XML over Secure Sockets Layer [SSL] connections," Walck says. "This is using Web technology - SSL and XML - as a way of providing a common framework for our business-to-business communication."

CDNs evolve

Service providers such as Adero, Akamai Technologies and Digital Island made CDNs prominent. These companies have deployed networks that spread across the world and sell services for bringing Web content geographically closer to end users. The result has been speedier downloads of Web sites such as Yahoo, MSNBC or LandsEnd.com.

The emergence of these Web acceleration methods in the late '90s opened the eyes of service providers to the problems of Internet congestion, according to Solom Heddaya, chief scientist at Infolibria.

"Major carriers have committed to doing CDNs because they finally understand that the Internet has fundamental issues that need to be fixed," Heddaya says.

However, the CDN providers have had a rough time lately: Last quarter, top CDN businesses Akamai and Digital Island saw losses of $US2.2 billion and $1.2 billion, respectively.

Cisco and chief rival Nortel Networks invested a combined $13.5 billion in Web acceleration and CDN technology last year. (Cisco purchased ArrowPoint Communcations for $5.7 billion, and Nortel bought Alteon WebSystems for $7.8 billion.) Both firms are now marketing CDNs and Web acceleration gear directly to corporate customers.

"Regular enterprises are starting to use Web technology for competitive advantage," Cisco's Walck says.

Cisco is promoting its CDN products as a way to improve streaming video performance in organisations for online training and education, and recently integrated RealNetworks software into its CDN product line to help boost streaming prowess. Customers for these "e-learning" technologies include Safeway Supermarkets and Express Personnel, a national staffing firm. Cisco says it saved $600,000 last year in travel expenses by conducting training over its network.

Walck says future plans for CDN technology from Cisco will involve the use of CDNs for e-commerce and the integration of VPN technologies with CDNs to "lock down" these new business networks. CDN technology and quality of service will be more tightly integrated to help prioritize traffic types and identify different types of customers in these CDN-based e-commerce networks.

One Cisco customer looking to do more with its CDN is Safeway Supermarkets. The firm has used Cisco CDN equipment, such as caching and videoconferencing servers, to train employees for the past three months. The company now sends 2M bit/sec MPEG2 video training programs via satellite to its 1,800 stores, where the files are cached locally and can be viewed on demand.

CDN technology at Safeway will become more than just a training tool, says Dan Pryor, director of retail communications for Safeway. The company plans to use CDN technology to put advertisements and other content onto point-of-sale screens in stores.

"We're looking to make this into a significant, revenue-generating thing for us," Pryor says of the Cisco CDN products.

Layering on Layer 7 apps

"Layer 7 is the ultimate network intelligence," says Marie Hattar, chief architect for Nortel's Intelligent Internet Group. However, "the whole migration of CDNs to the enterprise is a new thing in terms of utilising Web information."

Applications that Hattar thinks companies will adopt down the road include the use of load balancing for servers supporting remote and wireless clients, and improved security based on Layer 7 information.

Companies that deploy wireless infrastructures, including handheld devices based on the Wireless Application Protocol, may adopt Web switching techniques to boost the performance of those miniclients, Hattar says.

Web switches could be used to load balance the servers that support these devices, ensuring handheld users can access applications and content made specifically for them.

"This kind of intelligence is important: to understand the device a user is on and to send that user to the right servers," she says. "That can be done by using the info in the browser application."

Future applications of Nortel Web products could include improved intranet security, she adds, with the deployment of "intraoffice" security to servers and applications.

"Enterprises could use cookies as a way to ID subgroups of users within already existing user groups or for adding additional VPN security measures within an enterprise," Hattar says. "Some technologies do this at Layer 2 and Layer 3, but if you only want a certain part of a team to have access to certain servers, you could just embed a cookie into the application that says they have access and use Layer 7 switching to enforce that rule."

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